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LAWRENCE S. WITTNER Printer Friendly Page
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  • History professor at State University of Albany
  • Co-founded the Albany Chapter of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee
  • Anti-nuclear activist who credits the nuclear freeze movement for ending the Cold War
  • Claims that American defense expenditures invited a breach of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty by North Korea
  • “Wasn’t terrorism best dealt with on an immediate basis by law-enforcement (including sophisticated intelligence work and police action), and on a long-term basis by overcoming the hatred and sense of grievance that motivated terrorists?”



Born in 1941 in Brooklyn, New York, Lawrence S. Wittner is one of the foremost academic figures in the anti-nuclear movement. After attending Columbia College, the University of Wisconsin, and Columbia University, where he received his Ph.D. in History in 1967, Wittner returned to academic life as a professor, melding his leftist politics and his anti-nuclear passions with his scholarly pursuits. In 1974, Wittner joined the faculty at the State University of Albany in New York, as a professor of history. He has held that position ever since, teaching courses on U.S. foreign policy as well as a class called “The Quest for Equality in U.S. History.” Billed as an “examination of social and political movements seeking a more egalitarian social order,” the class is devoted to the study of “trade unionism, populism, anarchism, socialism, racial egalitarianism, and feminism.”

No sooner had he arrived at Albany than Wittner established himself as one of the university’s leading professor-activists. A vocal presence on campus, he championed traditional leftist causes as well as labor movement issues. Wittner was one of the founders of the Albany Chapter of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC), the organization first established by socialist activist Michael Harrington. Wittner went on to hold a number of leadership positions in the organization, including a stint as Secretary of the DSOC’s Albany chapter between 1981 and 1984. Though Wittner has seldom acknowledged the fact, the DSOC was a radical organization whose declared aim was to lay the groundwork for a socialist society in the United States. According to a collection of work that Wittner produced between 1977 and 1999 (archived at the University of Albany), the Albany chapter of the DSOC intended “to begin to advance democratic socialist solutions to national and local problems.”

Wittner’s activist energies were by no means confined to transforming American society to reflect his socialist ideals. In 1980, Wittner became a member of the executive committee of the United University Professions (UUP) Solidarity Committee, an AFL-CIO-affiliated union representing faculty members on 29 State University of New York campuses. (Still a member of the UUP, Wittner also sings and plays the banjo in his labor-movement-inspired six-person band, the Solidarity Singers.)

In the 1980s, Wittner made several attempts to enter political life. He signed on to the ill-starred campaigns of several left-leaning Democratic candidates. Among Wittner’s forays into the political arena was his work on the failed 1984 and 1986 congressional campaigns of New York Democrat Edward Bloch; a campaign by Green Party candidate and leftwing environmentalist activist Nancy Burton; and the 1989 and 1993 campaigns for political office by Albany-based union activist Leon Van Dyke. In 1988, Wittner waded into national politics, joining the unsuccessful presidential campaign of Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis.

More successful was Wittner’s involvement with the anti-nuclear movement. To promote what would become his absorbing passion, Wittner in the 1970s joined the ranks of several Albany-based anti-nuclear organizations, including Americans against Nuclear War, and the Capital District Anti-Nuclear Alliance. Wittner’s staunch opposition to nuclear weapons has also informed his best-known project, a three-volume work chronicling and celebrating the anti-nuclear movement. Unambiguously titled The Struggle Against the Bomb, the trilogy includes One World or None (1993); Resisting the Bomb (1997); and Toward Nuclear Abolition (2003). Informed less by dispassionate scholarship than by Wittner’s personal abhorrence for nuclear weapons, each book in the series advances what has long been the galvanizing contention of the anti-nuclear movement: that nuclear weapons are not a practical deterrent to nuclear war.

The books also showcase both Wittner’s tendency to erroneously credit the anti-nuclear movement for ending the Cold War, and his penchant for overdrawing the movement’s role in preventing the outbreak of nuclear war in the decades following World War II. In Toward Nuclear Abolition, for instance, Wittner argues that “[t]he Soviet government’s arms control proposals reflected even more clearly a response to pressures from the anti-nuclear campaign.” Yet as Tom Nichols, chairman of the Department of Strategy and Policy at the U.S. Naval War College, observed in an article for Front Page Magazine, the Soviet proposals owed less to any magnanimous impulse on the part of the Kremlin to conciliate the nuclear disarmament movement, than to a cynical strategy aimed at bringing international pressure to bear on the United States. 

Typical of Wittner’s work in this vein was a July-August 2004 article called “The Power of Protest,” which appeared in the leftist anti-nuclear journal Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Wittner used the article to sing the praises of anti-nuclear activists, crediting the anti-nuclear movement with putting the brakes on the nuclear arms race, and the thus with the successful deterrence of nuclear war. To the question of why the world has not seen a nuclear war in the post-World War II decades, Wittner replied, “The answer lies in a massive grassroots campaign that has mobilized millions of people in nations around the globe: the world nuclear disarmament movement. Indeed, the history of nuclear restraint without the nuclear disarmament movement is like the history of civil rights legislation without the civil rights movement.”

Wittner had nothing but derision for leaders like Ronald Reagan and George Herbert Walker Bush, his ideological adversaries, for their unwillingness to support the immediate nuclear disarmament urged upon them by anti-nuclear activists. Conversely, he offered a decidedly flattering, if historically revisionist, account of the role of Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, casting him as a convinced anti-nuclear activist who proffered the lone voice of reason in a world bestridden by uncompromising Washington hardliners. In Wittner’s telling, “Gorbachev met frequently with leaders of the nuclear disarmament movement and often followed their suggestions. On the advice of nuclear disarmament activists, he initiated and later continued a unilateral Soviet nuclear testing moratorium, decided against building a Star Wars antimissile system, and split the issue of Star Wars from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, thus taking the crucial step toward the 1987 agreement that removed all intermediate-range nuclear missiles from Europe.” Absent from Wittner’s air-brushed account of Gorbachev’s role in the nuclear standoff was any reference to the strained Soviet economy – a handicap made possible by, among other factors, increased American defense spending which placed considerable limits on the well-documented desire of the Soviet leadership to acquire an anti-missile system. (It should be noted that this revisionist adulation of the Soviet leader as a champion of the antinuclear movement is a running theme in Wittner’s writings; in one October 2004 article, for instance, Wittner gushed: “The term ‘statesman,’ in its positive sense, can be applied to only a few current and former heads of state. One of them is Mikhail Gorbachev.”)

However suspect from a historical standpoint, Wittner’s article was enthusiastically received by leftwing protestors prior to the November 2004 U.S. Presidential election; meanwhile, leftist outlets like the radio network Indymedia sought him out to offer inspiration for would-be demonstrators. Wittner himself got into the activist act, training his criticism on the Bush administration. An outspoken opponent of the President’s willingness to use military force, Wittner had long denounced the military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2003, Wittner allied with other members of the University of Albany’s faculty to sign an open letter  condemning the war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. In this letter, the signatories recited a litany of what would prove to be wrongheaded predictions – including warning of an “intensified conflict between Israel and the Palestinians,” and “increased popular appeal of radical Islamic movements.” In one particular passage, they revealed the real source of their opposition to the war: “A war against Iraq may advance the interests of U.S. oil companies and distract the American public from the economic and social ills that beset the nation, but it will not produce security for the people of the United States, the Middle East, and the world.” Expressing the distinctive understanding of patriotism routinely espoused by leftist activists, the signatories explained that patriotic duty demanded that they reflexively oppose the policies of their government. “Patriotism requires us to hold our government accountable, to stand up, speak out, and voice our opposition,” they stated in the letter.

In the run-up to the 2004 Presidential election, Wittner would follow up on these sentiments with several articles assailing the Bush administration’s foreign policies. For instance, in a March 2004 article for the History News Service, where Wittner is an occasional columnist, Wittner claimed that the blame for continued nuclear proliferation could be laid entirely at the feet of George W. Bush and his Republican colleagues. “Despite George W. Bush’s repeated warnings about nuclear proliferation, he and his fellow Republicans deserve much of the blame for it,” Wittner charged. Asserting that only disarmament policies could arrest nuclear proliferation, Wittner grumbled that “the administration has virtually scrapped the longstanding U.S. policy of nuclear disarmament – exactly the policy that, over the decades, has provided the key to halting nuclear proliferation.” In support of this tendentious view, Wittner cited the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which he claimed was a model of success: “With this bargain struck between the nuclear haves and have-nots, nearly all nations signed the NPT. Over the next 30 years, only one additional nation (Israel) developed nuclear weapons.” 

But Wittner’s account of the NPT’s accomplishments bore little relation to reality: Among other things, it neglected to mention the efforts of rogue states to procure nuclear weapons, including Iraq in the 1980s, and North Korea, India, and Pakistan in the 1990s. Wittner’s lone concession to the history of nuclear proliferation—a history that despite his willful ignorance had continued uninterrupted—was to acknowledge that North Korea had failed to abide by its NPT commitments. Even as he granted this point, however, Wittner found a way to hold the United States responsible for Pyongyang’s nuclear machinations. Drawing a moral equivalence between the democratic United States and the Stalinist state, Wittner suggested that American defense expenditures invited a breach of the NPT by North Korea, writing, “Given this repudiation of NPT commitments, it’s not surprising that North Korea has pulled out of the NPT and, perhaps, has begun building nuclear weapons. Nor is it surprising that a number of other nations might be working to develop a nuclear weapons capability. If the nuclear powers cling to their nuclear weapons and threaten their use, then other nations will inevitably try to join the nuclear club.”

Wittner took up the same line of argument the following month. Writing for the History News Network, Wittner heaped scorn on the Bush administration for what he called its “militarist mentality.” He asserted that, contrary to the arguments of Bush administration officials, there was no justification for a military intervention of Iraq. Wrote Wittner, “Given the Bush administration's militarist mentality, it brushed aside any doubts about military solutions to U.S. problems and quickly plunged into wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In Afghanistan, at least, there were terrorist training centers, and so some justification for war could be assembled. But in Iraq, there were none, and so the administration leaned heavily on misleading claims about weapons of mass destruction.” 

To be sure, the assertion that the United States had raced to pursue a military approach was patently at odds with Wittner’s previous writings. For instance, in a March 2004 op-ed for the Albany Times Union, Wittner had opted for a marginally more accurate presentation of the buildup to the Iraq war, writing, “Although the President did, grudgingly, consult the United Nations about the issue of Iraq’s suspected weapons of mass destruction, he seemed interested only in the world organization’s approval of his belligerent approach.” By April, Wittner had forgotten his own words; to the sustained diplomatic efforts made by the United States to recruit an international coalition to pressure Saddam Hussein to account for his weapons’ capacity, as well as the copious grounds cited by administration officials in defense of military action, he now paid no heed.

Instead, Wittner suggested that the war on terrorism could be won only when the grievances of terrorists were adequately redressed. Asked Wittner rhetorically, “Wasn’t terrorism best dealt with on an immediate basis by law-enforcement (including sophisticated intelligence work and police action), and on a long-term basis by overcoming the hatred and sense of grievance that motivated terrorists?” Using the peculiar logic that is a hallmark of his anti-nuclear activism, Wittner further posited that American nuclear capabilities were likely to increase the threat posed by terrorists. “Isn’t it possible that their development, testing, and deployment will increase dangers from terrorist acts and, in addition, spur the development of nuclear weapons in other nations?” Wittner asked.

Such reasoning has made Wittner a popular figure on the anti-nuclear and anti-war Left. To complement his book-writing, Wittner regularly makes appearances with other notables of the antinuclear movement. In December of 2004, for instance, Wittner took part in a conference called “Resistance and the anti-Nuclear Movement.” Sponsored by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the Samuel Rubin Foundation, the conference also featured Jacqueline Cabasso, the executive director of the anti-nuclear group Western States Legal Foundation; Nuclear Age Peace Foundation president David Krieger; and Peter Kuznick, a longtime anti-nuclear activist and professor at American University. Prominent leftwing philanthropies have also stepped forward to encourage Wittner’s work. In 2002, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation awarded Wittner a research and writing grant as part of its Program on Global Security and Sustainability. That same year, Wittner was given a fellowship at the United States Institute of Peace.

 

 

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